Glenne Headly sits in a West Hollywood cafe, sipping a giant glass of carrot juice.She’ll soon make her first American stage appearance in a decade, but she shows no sign of nerves.
For a long while, she admits, theater scared her. Film felt safer, more comfortable. But given the demands of a 3 1/2-year-old son, she now “lacks the energy to be afraid.”
Headly, 45, is starring in “Detachments,” the story of a “woman out of touch with her own needs,” she says. Written and directed by Colleen Dodson-Baker, it’s a comedic portrait of an actress coping with a retinal detachment and the breakup of a long-term relationship. Produced by the Loretta Theatre’s Beth Henley and Amy Madigan, the show begins previews Saturday at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood and opens Sept. 18.
In the 1980s, Headly appeared in numerous plays ranging from “The Curse of the Starving Class” in Chicago to “Arms and the Man” on Broadway. Last year, she wowed critics with her London debut in Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon.”
TV viewers may remember her Emmy-nominated performance in “Lonesome Dove” and her 1997-98 stint as Dr. Abby Keaton, a pediatric surgeon, on “ER.” Her big-screen breakthrough came in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1989) opposite Michael Caine, followed by roles in “Dick Tracy,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Mike Figgis’ “Time Code” and the upcoming Danny DeVito-Martin Lawrence film “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”
Taking a break before rehearsal, Headly discusses the danger of detachment in the acting world, the secret of good comedy and why she’s stayed away from theater so long.
Question: What sets “Detachments” apart from other plays you’ve done?
Answer: I thought no play could be as demanding as “Aunt Dan,” in which I began with a six-page, single-spaced speech and closed with one even longer. But this comes close--or surpasses it. I have simultaneous conversations with people in three different time periods--and each of the actors, except myself, plays at least four roles and has no time for costume changes. Because I never leave the stage, I can’t consult the script. I’ve got to be a little machine because there’s no time to think.
Q: Why the 10-year absence from theater?
A: I never intended it to be that long, but after the 1980s, I was tired of plays and didn’t want to commit to a long run. Why be on the road when you can stay at home and make much better money? Besides, in theater, you have to adjust your performance, looking at it through a magnifying glass. You have to make feelings visible to the audience and talk “up” so they can hear you. I generally aim for the middle of the house--and try to make the artifice feel natural.
Q: Is comedy as hard as it’s reputed to be?
A: To be good at comedy, you have to be a funny person yourself. I’m funny, with an appreciation for the absurd. You can’t go for goofing around or funny line readings--that doesn’t sustain a whole play. The reason Peter Sellers was so good in “Being There” is because he didn’t distance himself and make fun of the character. He tried to understand the man and took him to heart.
Q: In what way did you relate to your character, Ellen?
A: I relate to her determination to find security and happiness on her own grounds. That was never my problem though, straying from my core. Growing up an only child in New York City, you learn to count on yourself, and you see so much at an early age. I also was probably born that way--my son, too, has always been “centered.”
Q: Do actors, in particular, have a problem with detachment? Being on location--or performing eight shows a week--is so isolating.
A: You have to make tough choices. When I moved out to L.A. in 1990, I met a lot of movie stars who were very successful--and very lonely. Awards didn’t seem to help. In striving to be the best, they put their lives aside. I have a seven-year marriage to Byron McCulloch, a camera grip I met on a shoot, and I wouldn’t want to work nine months a year.
My first husband, John Malkovich, and I worked together all the time at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago as well as in New York. I wasn’t making movies yet, but I’d join him on location.
Q: Have you always wanted to act?
A: I really wanted to write. In second grade, I enjoyed having my creative writing read aloud, but realized I could do it better than the teacher. Then I decided to act out everyone’s stories--it was a lot easier than writing.
Q: Still, you did write a play 20 years ago.
A: I wrote one about maids and butlers in an English home. The director of a theater wanted me to make the ending more upbeat and I refused. I’m such a perfectionist that I decided to redo it from scratch. To avoid the temptation of referring to the original, I burned the entire script. I never rewrote it because work got in the way.
Q: Have you tabled writing for good?
A: After my baby was born, I wrote a screenplay in three days. I was very weird hormonally and wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to have a reading, though, because I wanted to make it better. Someday, I’ll get to it--it’s part of being true to myself. John [Malkovich] always said my real talent is writing.
“Detachments,” Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, Sept. 18-Oct. 29. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Tickets: $25. (310) 289-2999.